The golden age of television has become a breeding ground for the male antihero grappling with power; think Walter White or Frank Underwood. But Ozark season three introduced Laura Linney’s Wendy Byrde into that pantheon. That’s what made the new season all the more compelling. Wendy expanded on the Byrde empire, aggressively antagonized the local heroin dealer, exploded in a seemingly marriage-ending therapy session, and experienced her own version of Of Mice and Men. As Linney described Wendy herself, she’s a “primal” person, and it all comes out in the third season. In fact, the third season was all about Wendy, and it’s a performance that finds Linney deservedly back at the forefront of the Emmy race.
Speaking with Awards Daily, Laura Linney details Wendy’s whirlwind of a third season and how, for the first time, her origins started creeping out like the old twang she has been working to suppress: a life before marriage, children, politics, and money. It is a backstory Linney and the creative team have been plotting since the very beginning, and now that it’s been unleashed, there is no going back.
***Ozark Season Three Spoilers Ahead***
Awards Daily: I read that in the initial conversations about Ozark that you responded strongly to the story as a whole, but that you had some reservations about Wendy and that before signing on you asked for rewrites. What was it in that first read that gave you the feeling Wendy could become such an intriguing character to play? Did you have any idea the story would take her to where she is today?
Laura Linney: I talked with Jason [Bateman] about it, and I had long conversations with our fantastic show runner Chris Mundy. It was really about how the whole thing, and by the whole thing, I mean every character revolves around identity. There is a sense of struggle with identity, and if there was room to explore that both internally and externally, then Wendy could be fun to play, and there could be something to play. Fortunately, Chris agreed and hired an incredible room of writers, and they’ve written these amazing characters for all of us. I had no idea where it was going to go or what it would turn into or the tone it would take, but I am awfully glad I said yes.
AD: The third season was an incredibly transformative season for Wendy; a season where viewers try to understand the decisions she makes as she yearns for power and the survival of her family often times with the two contradicting each other. What do you think of as her driving force?
LL: I think more than anything her driving force is survival. I think she is someone that is learning more and more about herself every episode. The thing I love so much about Ozark is that every single character is different at the end of every episode than they were at the beginning. Watching how far everybody goes psychologically, how they develop and change with every twist and turn is really fun.
I think she is a very instinctive person. I think she is a very reactive person. She is a very primal person. And she’s not terribly mature. She lashes out and has a desire for something that I don’t even think she quite understands.
AD: You have now worked with Jason Bateman for three seasons developing this very complicated dissection of a marriage. What has that been like?
LL: It’s really exciting to be around someone who is coming into themselves in a way that has obviously been in the making for decades. Here is a guy who has spent his entire life on sets accumulating knowledge from every job he has ever had whether it was good or not, successful or not. He’s now getting to the point where he is so skilled and holds so much knowledge and is able to execute it which is exciting to be around as well as to be able to watch him get credit for it.
AD: The depiction of their marriage has been one of the most complicated and hard to watch portrayals of a relationship on television that I’ve seen in a long time. We’ve seen them tear each other down with surprising ease only to support one another in almost impossible situations moments later. Besides the obvious need for survival, why do you think this marriage has toughed it out?
LL: I think it’s a bunch of things. They are stuck with each other whether they want to be or not. They are safer together than they are apart. On a primal level, they’ve grown up together. They’ve changed so drastically through that, and they know things about each other that no one else knows. When you’ve shared a history with someone for that long, it’s a powerful thing.
AD: Throughout the season Wendy goes head-to-head with just about everyone, but no confrontation had my jaw on the floor quite like the scene between she and Marty at a therapy session; a nerve-wracking scene that even rivaled the intensity of the cartel. What was it like to film that scene?
LL: It was enormous fun because Jason is so good at what he does. We work very differently, and I always learn so much from him watching him navigate through any given moment. With a scene like that, and it’s a long scene, it has to be paced a certain way. Things have to build, and we can’t play it one note all the way through. There has to be a typography to the scene itself.
Together, we had to figure out the rhythm of the scene, the music of it, the language. What moments really land? What moves it all forward and when do you hold back? When are you interior and when are you lashing out? When are you in control and when are you out of control? There are all of those decisions that had to be made while filming, and we filmed it for a long time – many hours for that scene.
It was really fun to do and having Mary Louise Burke as our therapist made it even better. She’s a Broadway legend and I’ve loved her work for a very long time.
AD: One of those moments this season was definitely the end of the ninth episode when Wendy pulls over to the side of the road and calls Marty after ultimately sacrificing her brother for her family. I can only imagine how emotionally draining that was as an actor. What was it like to film that scene over the phone? Did it make your process more difficult for you?
LL: This is where experience helps you a little bit. I’ve been doing this for a while now, and over the years, I’ve learned how to execute these scenes and emotions where you’re isolated and alone. As an actor, I just had to look at the scene and trust that all the work that I had put into it leading up to that point will pay off.
It partly comes down to experience, but it is also a testament to Tom Pelphrey quite frankly. How much I enjoyed working with him and how rich that relationship was. The emotion had been built up in that relationship and dynamic for so long that when the moment finally comes you just try to get out of its way. Emotion is a result of things. It doesn’t just exist in its own world. It’s the final step. So you just have to make sure you complete the work that leads to that.
AD: Speaking of Ben, this is the first season where we have been given any insight into Wendy’s past before she ever became a Byrde. Did it change the way you approached Wendy in terms of your performance or understanding of her?
LL: That was very much a collaborative effort between the writers and myself. I think I had decided that she was from Boone, North Carolina. I have family there, and it made sense to me in a way. I wanted an Appalachian core to her that had been completely repressed as if she had tried to scrub it out. How that all bleeds back through once she’s in the Ozarks. There’s a reason she knows how to toss an opossum on the top of a trailer, and there’s a reason she knows how to talk to these people. I realized during the first season that it had to be that. She had to have some experience with this type of existence. This was not new to her.
AD: After everything Wendy goes through in the last couple of episodes, how does she come back, emotionally and physically and spiritually, especially from what happened to her brother and the role she played in it?
LL: I have no idea. I think the only person that knows is Chris Mundy. I have no clue where she goes from here which is fantastic. I really can’t see a way forward. It’s all weirdly opaque. The show steps into darkness and you don’t know where you’re going.
AD: Throughout the third season, Wendy has had these incredible sparring matches with just about every other character in the world of the show. Was there one that particularly sticks out to you?
LL: There’s not one to be honest. I love how there is something that she wants and needs in every single one of these characters. They all have something that she craves and she wants to be a little more like all of them. Almost through osmosis, she is trying to get what they all have whether that be what Helen, Navarro, Marty or Ruth has. Hopefully, that comes across differently in her relationship with all of them.
AD: Months later, I still can’t get the final image of the season out of my mind. Audiences, myself included, had NO idea what was about to happen. What did Wendy think she was walking into? Instead of Helen, did she think she was walking to her death?
LL: I think she knew it was a possibility. That’s why she says goodbye to Charlotte the way she does. She wants her last moment with her daughter to be something that Charlotte can hang onto. There’s a little bit of a Red Shoe complex – the classic film. She’s just moving, and it’s just going. At times, she feels like she can catch up and sometimes she doesn’t, but it’s all moving ahead and somehow, she’s in the current.
AD: I’ve been thinking a lot about the explosive popularity surrounding Ozark, especially this season. In a lot of ways this is a genre and set of themes that we are familiar with, but audiences are connecting with the Byrde family in such a genuinely exciting new way. Why do you think these themes are resonating so strongly right now?
LL: That’s a good question, and I wish I had a mind that could talk about that astutely. I think in some ways, or at least what I love about the show, is that it deals with identity and the question of “Who are we?”. It keeps asking that question. Who are we and what do we do and why are we doing what we are doing?
I think our whole country is asking itself the same questions right now.
The third season of Ozark is currently available to stream on Netflix.